Thursday, 28 January 2010

Kikuchi: Fitzrovia, London

Despite, or maybe because of, the dark and eery countenance of the sordid little laneway that is Hanway Street, I never fail to have a good time there. Tucked away discreetly in the midst of it all is Kikuchi - a Japanese restaurant that, with one peek in the window, we dared to dream might be something along the lines of which we had not encountered since our trip to Tokyo early last year.

It's small and basic, but jam packed with tables full of Japanese businessmen eating fresh sashimi and knocking back the sake like it's going out of style. We enter to cries of "Hirashaimaseeee" and a room buzzing with atmosphere. The sushi chef, with his carefully sculpted mo and sidies, works rapidly and ceaselessly at the counter, while the waitresses offer that amazingly friendly "can't do enough for you" service that is rarely seen outside of Japan. But just what do they cry out incessantly to each other, even when no-one seems to register a reaction??

Both the atmosphere and food are more authentic than anything I've found in London to date (noting I haven't yet been to Sushi-Hiro, which I've been hankering to try out - it recently won a Bib Gourmande in the UK 2010 Michelin Guide). At Kikuchi, there's a £20 per head minimum food spend, which means it's not exactly a cheap eats night out once you factor in the obligatory Japanese beers and sake, but on looking around at the food being delivered to nearby tables we were sufficiently caught up in the whirl of our new find and ready to take it on. And, given the quality, it turned out to be good value.

The waitress suggested sushi and sashimi are the house specialities. We didn't try them this time, but (we didn't realise at the time) Jay Rayner reviewed Kikuchi just a few weeks ago [GD: It's 2010 - his review was actually Jan 2009 - blonde moment] and raved about its sushi. It doesn't surprise me. Everything we ate was outstanding.

A little, freebie vegetable potato salad got the stomach juices flowing right from scratch. Our first starter, raw scallops with a smooth, sweet ginger sauce balanced beautifully with the seaweed and pickled vegetables around it. There was already a temptation for The Peanut Gallery and I to high five each other's chopsticks at this point.

Our prawn tempura was perfectly executed - light and crispy batter, with big, flavoursome, juicy prawns wrapped up inside. Another side of grilled eel with a cucumber and sesame salad in a sweet soy-like sauce was also excellent.

The grilled salmon skins with spring onion and radish was lush and crispy, while our chicken yakitori skewers were mouth wateringly tasty.  We finished off with the chicken and vegetable hot pot - a clear, light broth with outstandingly tasty chicken pieces, delicious chicken "rissole" type balls, silky tofu, cabbage and spring onion.

Our food bill came to £42, although we would order more next time (we had initially set out for a light meal). TPG declared it - when we come back again (oh, we will be back) it will be hard not to order the exact same dishes. They were all fantastic.

But I really do want to try the sashimi bar. And I want to see how the festivities end up for all those hard core, sake drinking folk around me. If you love the food in Tokyo, I suggest you'll find this one's a winner.

[Postscript: I have since gone back (many times...) and reviewed the sashimi - see here.]

Kikuchi, 14 Hanway Street, London W1T 1UD

Kikuchi on Urbanspoon

Monday, 25 January 2010

Harwood Arms: Fulham, London

Just over a week ago, the UK Michelin Guide results for 2010 were leaked. Among the Twitter frenzy, the Harwood Arms was outed as the first pub in London to be awarded a much coveted star. While the Michelin Guide has its detractors, this is certainly fine recognition about which any dining establishment would be suitably chuffed. One can only assume the champagne corks were popping in Fulham. But can a Scotch Egg really be that good? I considered it my duty to find out...

The Harwood Arms has a top class pedigree. Spawn of The Ledbury's Brett Graham and Pot Kiln's Mike Robinson, it has wisely posited chef Stephen Williams (also formerly of The Ledbury - which itself gained 2 stars this year) at the stovetop.

And I loved it at first sight. Relaxed country pub style, without the kitsch (not a wellie in sight), I found it warm and charming right down to the friendly, live human garden gnome sitting at the bar with his ale.

But better still was the menu. British and seasonal to the extreme, I could have thrown a dart at the thing and been happy with any line on which it landed. I eventually settled on some happy choices and remembered contentedly that there is another up-side to winter (in addition to re-discovering long forgotten treasures in the winter wardrobe) in the form of hearty winter feasts at your local pub. (Ok, so it's not my local, but you can definitely tell it's someone's.)

Enter the soda bread. Oh. My. Lordy. Lord. This bread was baked and handed down by God's own oven mitt. Only once before have I tasted bread this good - a very similar soda bread at The Crown Inn, in Amersham earlier in the year. But that requires a long train ride, a bus and likely dealings with lace doilies, tartan and old men with hunting rifles. This stuff's in Fulham. Unfortunately, the butter was as hard as a rock and completely unworkable without a bunsen burner on hand, but was hardly necessary with bread this moist, sweet and almost nutty.

Our starter was the easiest choice - you don't come to the Harwood Arms without trying its much famed Scotch Egg. The plate of venison starters for 2 was lovely containing a venison Scotch Egg, rissoles on licorice, pickled mushrooms, and some rare bits - on bread with a rich pate and on the side with a salad.

Simple, fresh and lovely. The meat was rich and tender, and well balanced with the bite of the salad and the rolling sweetness of the licorice. However, all eyes were on the Scotch Egg. Slowly, mouths open, eyes focussed, we took a knife to it.

Marvellous. Crispy bread crumbs and delectable layer of venison encased a perfectly soft boiled egg with gloriously runny yolk. Delicious. I took pause to think of those mysterious bottles of spirits at the back of your uncle's liquor cabinet with the larger-than-bottle-neck pear in them - just how do they do it? (Please don't tell me - let me have my dreams.) The Harwood Arms' venison Scotch Egg is truly a thing of awe and wonderment.

After some indecision, I had settled on the braised beef cheeks, with creamy mash, onions and carrots for my main meal. It was certainly a lovely, rich and tender dish - although nothing here stood out beyond what I would expect from any good gastropub.

The Peanut Gallery went for the daily special - deer, steak and shoulder (the latter fried up in crispy bready bits), with crispy garlic potatoes, mushrooms and (if I recall correctly) a licorice sauce on the side. Again, this was a terrific dish - no bells and whistles, just good solid pub fare.

For dessert - would madame like doughnuts with marmalade, orange sherbert and whipped cream? Uh, yuh-huh. I adored these doughey little balls of goodness - the tang of the marmalade against the glory of fresh cream. I couldn't distinguish the sherbert, but this was a delectable and surprisingly light end to my meal. Old sweet tooth, TPG, did naturally have a whine about his view that raspberry jam was the only acceptable filling for a doughnut (with the possible exception of custard) but my dough babies and I blocked it out as unnecessary background noise and marched on.

TPG was rubbing this hands together over the thought of his baked custard with gingerbread, cider sorbet (from memory) and poached pear. Imagine how his poor little heart sank when he found himself confronted with what appeared to be a creme brulee instead? He was, it seems, expecting something closer to a creme caramel - less cream, more eggy. Well, TPG's loss, my gain - give me a creme brulee any day. The custard was lovely and creamy and the gingerbread was delicious. However, the sorbet was too beery and acidic - a match that didn't quite work for me.

Service was friendly, and the only glitch was the inability to grab anyone's attention to pay our bill, after which the card machine remained broken for 15 minutes so TPG was summonsed to walk to the bank (in driving rain - TPG). We also noticed they brought the plates out for the table next door while none of the relevant patrons were seated (all being outside for smoko) - I would not be a happy camper to come inside to cold food.

One of the nice things about this high achieving neighbourhood pub is its mixed crowd. From old men eating their snails at the bar, to cool young thirty somethings having a drink on the couch, there's surely something for everyone here.

So, is the production of what might just possibly be the world's greatest Scotch Egg and Soda Bread sufficient to justify a Michelin Star? I'm certainly excited for the Harwood Arms that they've achieved one, and I love the fact that places like this are recognised by the Guide. But, if I was after Michelin Star dining, and all the dazzlement that I normally associate with it, this would not be my first choice of venue. In the end, this question doesn't really matter. The food is homely but well executed, with even some outstanding moments - particularly on the simple things (egg, bread). Service, although friendly and refreshingly relaxed, could improve and would do well to be a little more polished and knowledgeable on the product and the wine list.

I'm probably holding the Harwood Arms to high standards, but this seems only fair when visiting within a week of its star award. But go in expecting great, solid gastropub food, in a comforting atmosphere, and you won't be disappointed. All up, our meal came to just under £95 including wine and service.

27 Walham Grove, Fulham, London, SW6
Harwood Arms on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Baozi Inn: Soho, London

(Beijing noodles)

There's something about slurping a big bowl of spicy noodles during winter. Preferably, with enough chilli to blow your socks off. It's one of the first things I crave when feeling seedy or jaded - ranking right after a saline drip and Swedish scalp massage (preferably both at the same time).

Baozi Inn is my favourite noodle joint around the West End. Middle child of siblings Bar Shan (reviewed earlier here) and Bar Shu, Baozi shows none of the signs of middle child syndrome. It's nestled in among the streets of China Town where it sets a sterling example to some of it's lesser culinary neighbours with terrific Beijing and Chengdu style street food.

I love its kitschy interior - from the Chinese revolutionary posters staring down from the walls, to the little red lanterns giving off a mild glow to the dimly lit room. Dark wooden stools and tables add to the den like qualities, if not creating a sumptuously comfortable place to linger. However, this is fast food in the best sense.

We blew off the winter blues this week with the cucumber and chilli salad. This highly charged chilli hit contains huge chunks of dried chilli and is a terrific, fresh 'n fiery palate cleanser.

After we had picked our nostrils up from the floor, we moved onto the Beijing Noodles with fermented bean and pork. With fresh chillis, Chinese greens and slippery noodles, these were flavourful and mild on the spice (pictured top).

I raised a 'brow at the arrival of my Pork Spicy Noodles, as I thought I had ordered a soup - although the menu clearly specified them in the dry noodle section. Focus, GD, focus. My socks remained firmly in place despite the reference to spice, but the mild nature was a welcome recovery as we continued to swelter and bathe our gums in available fluids after the cucumber-chilli intro. The dish comes segmented with the pork at the bottom of the bowl, to be mixed enthusiastically with the garlic and finely sliced and diced vegetables to create a deep, brown homely feast.

There's not a huge variety on the menu - dry noodles, soupy noodles, buns, dumplings and the odd side salad. But what it does, it does simply, and well. Had I been to Chengdu, I would be able to vouch one way or another on its authenticity, but I can only shrug my shoulders and declare, "Who the hell cares? It's good." It's certainly different to the usual Cantonese cuisine. There's lots of chilli, garlic, peanuts and spice. The noodles are said to be freshly made each day, and the wontons are also light and delectable - perfect for dunking in a side of chilli oil. The baozi buns are a hit with TPG, and are a slightly heavier version of the traditional steamed pork bun we all know and love. The only downer - there's no dessert on the menu.

With Tsao beer and a pot of green tea, our bill came to an easily digestible £20 for 2.

Fast food need not come wrapped in a confectionery burger bun - this is nourishing, good for the soul stuff that will clear your sinuses without emptying your wallet. Although, I'm still contemplating that Swedish head massage...

Baozi Inn, Chinatown, 25 Newport Court, London
Baozi Inn on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 21 January 2010

St John, Smithfield - Pigfest 2010: London

If it's part of the animal, it won't feel out of place on the menu at St John.

St John is known as a London institution for true Brit "nose to tail" eating. For those, like me, who like to get their snouts in the trough, it represents simple, trimmed down principles in both style and substance.

Set in a former smokehouse near the Smithfield meat market, St John is not typical among its Michelin Star star contemporaries. In plain, white walled, basic surrounds, the intrepid diner is drawn to focus on quality samples of weird and wonderful meat cuts and combinations - like pheasant and trotter pie, or snail, sausage and chickpea. The philosophy seems to be that if you're going to kill the beast, it's only fair to make thorough use of it. St John is not for everyone, but proprietor Fergus Henderson was heralded as revolutionary for bringing the St John concept to life in its early days (at least) after opening in 1994, despite having no formal training as a chef (he trained as an architect).

I've been to St John several times, both to the dining room and to scoff the gorgeous, freshly baked madeleines over a cuppa downstairs at the bar (a soothing way to break up the bus trip home from East London).

The food is anything between well executed to absolutely delicious (and this from a girl who would rather eat her own toenails than offal). Service is, unfortunately, all too consistently frosty.

So it was with this history in mind that I eagerly attended the Ladies' Pigfest 2010 with 15 other fine femme foodies and bloggers last week. Our object: To eat pig. Lots of pig.

We had pre-ordered the whole roast suckling pig (requiring large group bookings) with sides of boiled potatoes and greens. Our selected starters were St John's signature roasted bone marrow with flat leaf parsley and spring onion salad, and whole crab with mayonnaise. Desserts were to be the British-to-the-bootstraps Eccles cakes with Lancashire cheese and Spotted Dick with custard. Righty ho old, chum - so how'd it go?

Weee-eeelll. Despite pre-ordering everything well in advance, we waited for 50 minutes for our entrees to arrive. Woman cannot live on bread alone. So by this time, the red wine teeth stains were already starting to take a serious grip. However, the dishes - once they arrived - were excellent.

The crab contained a plentiful bounty of sweet, decadent meat. It was the winning entree, hands down.

With greasy hands, we also partook in squatty pillars of bone, containing blobs of juicy marrow to be glooped carefully onto 1/2 a bit of toast (there not being enough to go around the table). More toast was eventually forthcoming on request, although it was strange to have to ask - surely one might bank on at least 1 piece each? Noted. However, the combination of gelatinous marrow with crispy salad and crunchy toast was as good as ever (I've indulged in them before). Anthony Bourdain rates it as his ultimate last supper. I'd probably rather a good steak to see me out, but you get my drift.

Then, we each licked our lips as we waited for the main event. Bring on the piggy. Alas, we waited long enough for my haircut to go out of fashion before our pig was brought forth, in all its shiny, glistening glory. In all the anticipation, there was a relieved flurry to take photos (a full roasted pig is quite an impressive sight), but as I remained a-guzzling and a-chatting in my seat, I was not aware that our waiter had apparently been quite rude about said flurry. I can forgive delays in a busy kitchen to some extent, but bad attitude (either way) between waiter and diner is not on.

Anyhoo, the pig was utterly delicious. Vegetarians, please look away now. In primordial style, Petunia was swiftly decapitated and its head was passed around on a plate for cheeks, ears, snout etc to be devoured. This was no ladies' cupcake tea. The meat was tender, succulent, flavoursome - and there was lashings of it. (In fact, there have been comments that this might have been quite an old piglet given its size - the piglet should have been fed on its mother's milk until it is slaughtered between the age of 2-6 weeks - although I think British piglets are bigger than Spanish ones.) Suffice to say, this pig did not die in vain - it was thoroughly devoured and admirably drooled over. I also loved the greens and ladled several helpings onto my plate.

Unfortunately, due to the constant waiting game, several of my fellow divas had to dash for last trains (it was almost 11pm) so could not stick around for dessert. So I have not had the heart to tell them about the crispy, currant filled Eccles cakes, combined beautifully with a huge slab of mild Lancashire cheese. Nor about the glorious, huge Spotted Dick puds swimming in gorgeous warm custard. I had 1 serve of each (and sneaked a second slab of the Spotted Dick). Then, I hopped into my beloved madeleines. Separate stomach and all that...

The largely French wine list always provides, and it certainly did again at Pigfest 2010. Great food, wine, and fabulous company made for a wonderful evening. However, the slow and unnecessarily crusty service - and not for the first time - left a bad taste for many of my fellow guests.

There was no explanation offered at the time for our wait, despite that everything was ordered in advance. However, the manager has since contacted some of my accomplices to offer an apology, an explanation, and a very kind invitation to make amends over a drink and some desserts. Well handled.

Thanks to the lovely Meemalee (Mimi) for organising - you can see her own version of events here.

St John might have the food down pat, but it really needs to lift in respect of its service. Other than that, it's offally good. (Sorry.)

26 St John Street, Smithfield, EC1M 4AY

St John (Farringdon) on Urbanspoon

Monday, 18 January 2010

Galvin La Chapelle: Spitalfields, London

Riding on the bus to Galvin La Chapelle, I am already picturing the dry martini I will have on arrival. I can envisage the whole ritual - the slow cooling of the long stemmed cocktail glass, a slosh of gin, a dash of vermouth, a quick stir, the gentle pour, a single stir inside the iced glass, a run of lemon peel around the rim, add an olive, serve, sip, shoulders relax, face brightens, smile. Aaahhh...

And it pretty much goes to plan, except that I was not expecting to drink it in surrounds with all the ambience of a state library.

"Do you think anyone else is coming?" I whisper to The Peanut Gallery. It's just prior to 7.30pm, and there are a few tables seated, making all the noise of a pair of socks hitting the carpet.

I was expecting to be all agog at G La C's much lauded vaulted ceilings, impressive columns and high arches, the plush leather backed seats, the white table clothes and all the other shiny bits. But my overriding impression at first sight was of the corporate character and hushed tones. If G La C could be wearing a grey pin stripe and a calculator in its pocket, it would be. Where was the glamorous French bistro with some wow factor on the side? This room had nothing like the dazzle of the Wolesley or the jaw to floor effect of restaurants like Matsuri in New York. This was not a place for raucous laughter and gregariousness.

We took our seat under the arches, placed our order and, despite the attentive service, I uttered the magic words I had been holding back hopefully during cocktail hour: "I already know I'm not going to like this place". The Greedy Diva had spoken.

And then on cue - sudden unexpected joy and merriment, buzz, noise, chatter, laughter, lights, action, the drama of trays dropping around us and the imminent arrival of our delicious looking food. TPG looked on smugly. The times they were a changing.

My Moroccan tagine of squab pigeon was tender and perfectly cooked. It came bedded on cous cous, deliciously sweet and savoury, with black olives, almonds and raisons, and a shot of spicy harissa on the side. The accompanying quail's egg looked pretty, but was a fairly flavourless addition to an otherwise alluring dish.

TPG's venison with red cabbage, apple match sticks and puree was a gorgeous combination, even if the venison alone was not a stand out.

I had missed out jealously on the blueberry souffle with coulis and milk ice-cream once before at Bistrot Galvin De Luxe - and in the words of George Bush "fool me once...." etc - it wasn't going to get past me again. Our waiter spliced the top of the perfectly formed souffle and poured in the coulis while we watched in awe, trying to hold back our spoons. I had been salivating over this moment for months. Alas, another turn of events - while the texture was beautiful, the pudding was far too jammy for me. The coulis was overbearring, and was swirled throughout the souffle even before it was added through the top on serving. TPG selflessly finished it off for me. The milk ice-cream was fabulous.

TPG's creme caramel with raisins mouleux was rich and delicious.

We greedily wanted more. We had seen the cheese trolley on arrival and there was no turning back. 6 gorgeous cheeses, from oozing brie to biting blue, were served up by our excellent waiter with a side of sliced celery and green grapes. These cheeses were alive and glorious. Come to mama....

Wines are conveniently available by the bottle, glass, small pot and large pot.

So, in the end I ate my words about this, the third restaurant of Chris and Jeff Galvin. While I prefer the capable Parisian simplicity of Bistrot Galvin De Luxe (see my earlier review here), La Chapelle's elegant cuisine and setting in a Victorian church hall has more pizazz. There are other places I would rather go for formal dining, but once the night warmed up there is definitely a fun chatter to the room - just don't arrive before 8pm when it feels rather soulless - and overall the food did not disappoint (with the exception of my souffle which came laden with high expectations).

You may wish to try the more casual Cafe Galvin de Luxe next door to get a taste of the kitchen without all the formality.

35 Spital Square, Shoreditch, London, E1 6DY
Galvin la Chapelle on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Foxcroft & Ginger : Soho, London

Foxy name. Central location. Monmouth coffee. There's a new kid on the coffee block.

Foxcroft & Ginger opened last week and identifies itself as a "deli and espresso bar". Set in the middle of the scungy Berwick Street fruit market (just down the road from Flat White), this place has officially earned the rare GD merit stamp which ranks it with the select few of her esteemed London coffee shop big guns (Fernandez & Wells, Milk Bar, Flat White, MonmouthLantana).

I've now been back twice, just to make sure. Afterall, recommending a morning coffee spot is a serious game - there's no margin for error.

The first time I sampled the goods was a couple of days after opening, and I was seriously early (before they had even put the sign up, but they kindly let me in anyway) - the machine had not yet warmed up, the counter was not yet stocked. I couldn't be sure if the Monmouth coffee would always be paid its due respect. Further investigation was mentally scheduled in.

This morning, I can confirm. Hallelujah! Caffeinophiles - we've found another one! We have another cafe in London which makes supremely great coffee. First sip, slightly bitter, as often happens at the Monmouth mothership itself. But then it mellowed and rounded into a sublime, rich and smooth flat white. Thank you.

Having just sampled the whole pig at St John last night, I had no room for the tasty delights on offer - but they are secondary in any case to the service of a good morning coffee. (At the moment, the coffee is also good value, relative to its local competition, at less than £2). There's hardy looking French toast with ham and cheese or a sweet banana option - both were being sizzled up on the spot this morning. There's pastries, scrambled egg muffins (with salmon or prosciutto), chelsea buns - all quality, locally sourced produce (some from Borough Market), and of the nature that if you like Fernandez, you'll like it here. As I rifled through magazines, I was offered half a blueberry muffin to sample - moist and delish.

Service is super friendly (the owners are lovely) and they have a serious, hand built coffee machine on board. F&G still has that intimate feel of a much loved new venture, being lovingly nurtured by its parents. They're picking up the furniture tonight to add extra seating downstairs. They're going to need it.

So, it is with a heavy heart that I post this review - because I know it will only contribute to making it that little bit more difficult to nab that window seat and sip a perfect flat white in future.

Foxcroft and Ginger, 3 Berwick St, Soho, London W1F 0DR

Foxcroft and Ginger on Urbanspoon

Pancake fix - requiring a re-visit of Bistrotheque (Bethnal Green, London)

I've been hankering after all things pancake, pikelet or crumpet oriented of late.

I still remember that first bite of fresh Nutella crepe from a street side Parisian stall, on my first trip to Paris many moons ago. The way the stall man spread the batter thinly and swiftly across the big round hot plate. Watching transfixed as it bubbled and fried, while the sweet smell wafted up into the cool night air. The quick "can-this-really-be-happening-to-me" inhale as spoon after spoon of Nutella was lugged onto the mix. The "if-only-I-knew-someone-here-to-bowl-over-and-hug" incredulity as he agreed to add just a little bit more on request. Aaahh, yes....the moon was shining, the Tour d'Eiffel was twinkling, and soon my trusty tres chic winter fleece and I were turning heads in all our sloppy brown, smeared glory.

Move forward to London, winter, 2010. It's snowing, and the Eiffel Tower has been replaced by the Fitzrovia Telecom Tower. C'est la vie. But plenty of opportunities for sweet, batter-ey goodness abound.

I've already raved about my love for Bistrotheque here. But I kept dreaming about the pancakes, so I needed to return. On the double.

Battling snow, sleet and wind, The Peanut Gallery and I, solid troopers that we are, made our way there on Sunday morning. Newspapers? Check. Strong coffee? Check. Gorgeous pancakes with strawberries and maple syrup to warm the cockles and tantalise the sweet tooth on a cold winter's morning? CHECK.

At £5, these babies are just such a good deal. While they're not quite up to the level of the fluffy breakfast pikelets at St John Bread & Wine (Spitalfields) (served with delish home made strawberry jam), if the speed at which I inhaled the tidy little 3 stack is any indicator, they certainly went a long way to addressing my Sunday morning fixation.

They were slightly heavier and less fluffy than I remembered them (having previously sampled their voluptuous sisters, the pancakes with blueberries and ice-cream). Although, both the TPG and I quite like them on the hardy side. There's also an option to have them with maple syrup and bacon should you feel so inclined.

Generally, a main difference between pancakes and pikelets is that pancakes are made with plain flour and pikelets are made with self-raising flour (or plain flour and baking soda) so the latter rise. However, some preliminary research reveals the nature of your pancakes and pikelets may vary widely depending on where you're coming from. American pancakes are more likely to contain a rising agent. There are also heady issues of size, stack multiples, cooking method and accompaniments to consider. In fact, there's a whole can of worms of opinion out there on the how, what, where and why of pancakes. Love it.

And then, of course, there's your thin and lacy French crepes - served best with a full jar of Nutella (and maybe some nuts or banana if you want some beefing up). Be warned that the Crepe Affair people are kidding themselves if they think their standard scraping of Nutella is sufficient - I gave up on them long ago. Lemon and sugar is also alright by me.

No matter. I'll be having a rendezvous with the whole crepe genre in Paris in a few weeks time - Monsieur Crepe Man, here I come.

Bistrotheque, 23 - 27 Wadeson Street, Bethnal Green, London E2 9DR

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Busaba Eathai - Soho, London

When The Peanut Gallery and I first moved to London, Busaba Eathai in Soho was our staple Friday night feed. We'd stumble our way through the Sohoian streets, TPG nudging me to hide my A to Z, as we placed bets on how long the queue would be (it's deceptively fast if there's only 2 of you). And I still love it. It's casual, fast, stylish and lively. But most importantly, the food is delicious.

Through years of intense meditation and mind control exercises, I have now trained myself not to crave Busaba every Friday night. However, I still need the occassional fix, and I cannot think Busaba without thinking robotically "must have Thai calamari". At £4.70, that with a bowl of coconut rice would happily be my rainy day meal for eons to come. But of course, who stops at ordering one dish? Or even 3 for that matter?

The menu has recently changed, but still has all my old, comforting favourites. We visited last weekend for a Sunday lunch. The Thai calamari with ginger and peppercorn and coconut rice was as sweet, tasty and moreish as ever. The chicken with butternut squash, cashews and dried chilli had nice flavours and bite, although the chicken to squash ratio could have done with some equalising - more chicken please. The squash became boring.

The prawn pomelo with peanut served on a betel leaf (top image) was so much lovelier than it looked - I compared it on sight to the gorgeous, huge juicy prawn pomelos we ate at Longrain in Melbourne the week before, which certainly left Busaba's equivalents in the shade. However, the peanutty taste and texture was good, even if they did overpower the prawns which were total midgets. Nothing would be lost if the prawns were left off the dish all together. Interestingly, a quick check on the Ayurvedic qualities of betel leaf indicate that it can be used to cure worms, bad breath, constipation, toothache and is somehow, after all that, also an aphrodisiac.

Everything at Busaba is bright and colourful - and looks good enough to ... eat. I also love the Pad Thai, the som tam (green papaya salad) and the char-grilled rib-eye. Not sure about one new addition to the menu - Thai anchovy spaghetti. What the...?

I always think beer goes best with Thai (there are Singhas on the menu) but the juices and teas at Busaba are also lovely - there's ginger and honey tea with a cashew and coconut cookie, homemade lemonade, various exotic juices and smoothies and, of course, the mango lassi - with rosewater, honey and cardamom. Although why is it that everyone here drinks rose (that's rose-ay - just where is the accent on blogger)? I tried the most popular rose to see what the big deal was, but the mystery remains.

My only gripe is that they still have not brought back the duck salad (circa 2007) and there are still no desserts. Fortunately, Princi's cannoncini are but a few steps across the road. (The Princi doorman now smiles at us sympathetically - yes, we are pathetic.)

Sure it's a chain, which I normally avoid at all costs, but Busaba has more heart and soul than equivalents at that price. Sometimes they churn you out, but only if you let them. There's slick dark wooden floors and furniture, communal seating, and lemongrass scented incense burning in the doorway. Busaba is another Alan Yau creation - but it's less cold and canteen-like than Wagamama, and not as traumatic for your wallet as Yautcha and Hakkasan.

I also love the kick I get every time when, as a party of 2, we whizz past hundreds of larger groups in the queue. Evil, I know. I generally try not to high five TPG until we are at least 2 metres inside the doorway. Also a good choice if eating solo - they'll sit you up at the bar facing the street (where you can wave at the queue while rubbing your belly).

For a hassle free, cheap and cheerful Thai fix, Busaba remains one of my local favs.

Busaba Eathai, 106-110 Wardour Street, Soho, London W1F 0TR (Other branches exist in Bird Street and Store Street).

Busaba Eathai on Urbanspoon

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